By William Safire The New York Times
Edited by Jared Carrot Juice
Monday, January 31, 2005
WASHINGTON 'By all that is sacred in our hopes for the human race," wrote the passionate poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1813, "I conjure those who love happiness and truth, to give a fair trial to the vegetable system." The cardinal rule of that blithe spirit: "Never take any substance into the stomach that once had life."
A few decades after Shelley's endorsement, the diet was being called vegetarian, a word popularized by the formation of the Vegetarian Society at Ramsgate, England, in 1847. After its planting, that word grew (from the Latin vegetare, "to grow") for a century.
Then along came the Yorkshireman Donald Watson, a woodworker in Britain and a devotee of greens, who was looking for a name for his newsletter. He was tired of typing the long word vegetarian thousands of times and believed nondairy was too negative: "Moreover it does not imply that we are opposed to the use of eggs as food," he wrote to his subscribers in 1944. "We need a name that suggests what we do eat." He rejected vegetarian and fruitarian as "associated with societies that allow the 'fruits'(!) of cows and fowls." (That's milk and eggs; the poet Robert Lowell wrote in 1959 of a "fly-weight pacifist,/so vegetarian,/he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.")
Watson suggested to his readers that the newsletter be called The Vegan News. "Our diet will soon become known as a vegan diet, and we should aspire to the rank of vegans."
As his subscribers swallowed his coinage, Watson promptly made it an -ism: "Veganism is the practice of living on fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains and other wholesome nonanimal products." He thus dissociated his strict -ism from that of vegetarianism, a less rigorous regime that usually permits the eating of eggs, dairy products and honey.
Vegetarian has another offshoot besides the aforesaid fruitarian: "Pescetarian is a frequently used term for those alleged veggies who eat seafood (but not meat or fowl)," noted a writer in The Guardian in 2002, "and irritate meat eaters and genuine vegetarians the world over."
One who exclusively noshes on crudits (a Yiddish-English-French phrase) is called a rawist.
My problem with vegan is its pronunciation. For this we turn to the word's coiner: "The pronunciation is VEE-gan," Watson told Vegetarians in Paradise, a Los Angeles-based Web site, last year, "not vay-gan, veggan or veejan." Watson has a major coinage under his belt, and he's a spry 94.